It started in Rome, with a pair of shoes. Paula Rabinowitz was a 1997 Fulbright professor at University of Rome 3. Cristina Giorcelli was the head of the graduate program in American Studies there--and the editor of a book series on the cultural, social, and political meanings of clothing and accessories, Abito e Identita: Ricerche di storia letteraria e culturale. "I've been into shoes for a long time, and of course, I'm in Italy, where there's a shoe store on every corner," recalls Rabinowitz in a conversation in Lind Hall. "I had one particular store that I adored, up the hill from my apartment. It was like the guy who owned it had my brain." Coincidentally, Giorcelli was looking for someone to write about shoes for her series. "She knew I was always coming in on the way to work and saying, 'Look at these shoes I bought!'" Rabinowitz laughs. "I was really honored that an Italian would ask me to write on shoes."
The essay that resulted, "Barbara Stanwyck's Anklet: The Other Shoe," arose organically from Rabinowitz's interest in film noir. It was included, 15 years later, in Rabinowitz and Giorcelli's book Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), the first of a four-part series that selects and translates the best from Abito e Identita and includes new articles. This past summer, Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being II arrived, focusing on the world trade in clothing and accessories and the accompanying exchange of meanings around those items.
After she left Rome, Rabinowitz had continued to write for Giorcelli, and they'd spoken about producing an English language collection of Abito e Identita. "I knew that Doug Armato [University of Minnesota Press Director] was interested in getting into fashion studies," reports Rabinowitz. "The whole thing worked out while we were both chairing our respective departments, figuring, 'Oh well, this will be easy to do'--you can't really think when you're a chair, but you can do a little organizational work."
A "little" turned out to be optimistic. First they had to agree on what to select from 11, and counting, volumes of Abito e Identita, which mostly meant that Rabinowitz had to review them and then argue with Giorcelli. "When you work with someone, it's totally maddening; you want to kill each other half the time," she claims gleefully, "but also it's really great because you do get these different ideas of what's important and what's not. For instance, there's a piece in one of the most recent Abitos about the uses of the hood in torture. Cristina said, 'I doubt they'll even let us publish it.' And I said, 'You know, Cristina, we have the Bill of Rights here.' When I actually read the essay, every one of the sources is American. So I said, 'This is not even new to us.' We didn't put that one in."
While the editors asked the original writers of the articles to arrange for their own translation to English, Rabinowitz had to painstakingly review the results. "A lot of [translators] don't know the technical language," she notes. One article was by a psychoanalyst, a Lacanian: "They kept talking about 'the glance,' and I thought it was kind of evocative--and, all of sudden, a day before the page proof deadline, I thought, 'Wait a minute, she means "the gaze"!'" Rabinowitz laughs in disbelief.
One area Rabinowitz has enjoyed is the opportunity to include new or recent work by colleagues and former students. Accessorizing the Body features past advisee Becky Peterson (PhD '10), with an excerpt about poet Laura Riding from her dissertation, as well as textile art from Department of English professor Maria Damon. In the second volume, Katalin Medvedev, another former advisee, provides an ethnography of Savers thrift stores. For the third, which will have a 19th century focus, Rabinowitz caught up with pioneering woman video artist Beryl Korot and recruited her piece "Florence," a combination of weaving and video about Florence Nightingale. Rabinowitz asked Joanne Eicher, Regents Professor Emerita of Design, Housing and Apparel, with whom she directed Medvedev's thesis, to contribute to volume four, with its theme of everyday fashion across the world.
Giorcelli is "marching forward" with number 12 of the Abito series, Rabinowitz says. For her part, she's glad to be ending Habits of Being at four volumes. Since her tenure as chair ended, Rabinowitz has been working on a book for Princeton entitled American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. "It's kind of a sequel to my noir book [Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism]," she says. "It's about the paperback revolution and the circulation of high culture as trash--in the way that Faulkner became marketed as a sex novelist after Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road was such a big hit, and they turned all these Southern authors into steamy sex writers."
The current project grew out of the research Rabinowitz did for another Giorcelli article, "Slips of the Tongue: Lesbian Pulp Fiction as How-to-Dress Manuals" (included in Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being II). In the essay she looks at the covers of lesbian pulp novels, which often featured women in slips, and relates them to the books' role in the forging of an early lesbian subjectivity and culture. An unexpected side effect of this focus: Rabinowitz's office is now decorated with over 400 luridly colored paperbacks from the mid-20th century.
Of course, Rabinowitz has always had an interest in visual culture: cinema, photography, painting. So fashion was not, in the end, such a stretch. "When you start taking apart clothing--earrings, buttons, the little flowers in your hair, keychains, watches--then you start thinking, 'Wow, all these little details,'" enthuses Rabinowitz. "And, if you're a literary critic, that's what you do, you 'read in detail,' to use Naomi Schor's phrase."